Group shows are rarely just about the artwork. They're mostly about some overarching idea that the work helps to illustrate. Of course, the work itself plays a role as viewers decide what they like or what they don't like.
There is also the matter of how objects work together as a cohesive whole. Is there a flow from object to object, concept to concept? Do the works have the ability to hold their individual voices and simultaneously "speak" as a group? If you put a group of people in a room, not only will there be some kind of overall, polyphonic "voice" but also a number of more intimate dialogues running concurrently.
The question here is whether or not the work that comprises Maternal Metaphors: Artists/Mothers/Artwork is really that diverse. Diversity depends on the people in the gathering, but even more so, on the circumstances that bring them together. Rarely is there a gathering of people where some common language is not spoken. Take, for example, a child's birthday party, an art opening, or even the Democratic National Convention: All three entertain multiple voices, but does that make these voices diverse?
"Maternal Metaphors is an exhibit of diverse and provocative work," according to the introductory text panel to the exhibition. Furthermore, the exhibition title tells us that it's about the maternal and its metaphors, and the relationship between artists, motherhood, and art-making. But the exhibition is also about art as work -- the work of the artist and the work of the mother. In a sense, both title and text panel provide us with a promise of what is to come --- literally just around the corner --- when we enter the exhibition space. The introduction provokes us, directs us into an interaction with the artworks that will, hopefully, incite and excite.
So, what degrees of emotional awakening does the work provide? Does it stimulate or arouse immediate and brief sensations or rouse and stir deeper and stronger responses? Then again, any kind of response really depends on the viewer's willingness to spend time with the objects and ideas presented. In this sense, most anything can provoke. We can see some kind of deep structure expressed in all objects and texts, either as intentional or just running parallel to our culture and society.
What does it mean when we're told that we are to be provoked? Are we to be stirred to anger and resentment or to deep feelings by the work or by the provocation of being led by the provoking instructions? What action do we take? And what exactly is diverse? Is it that the works themselves are representative of varied media? Are the artists distinct and/or unlike one another?
Maternal Metaphors consists of paintings, photographs, sculptures, installations, and videos. There is indeed a diversity of medium, at least in the sense that all these mediums are part of the status quo of contemporary art. Diversity is present here through the kind of exhibition. Just like when we consider what kind of party to host --- how many "different," but not too different, people should be invited --- there is as much about exclusion as there is inclusion. Social decorum must remain intact! Some dissent is good and provocative, but too much, after all, is no party.
Are the artists diverse? The show consists of a group of women who are artists participating in the institutional discourse of "art making". Of course they are different women, coming from different cities and backgrounds. But they're also all educated, upper-middle-class artists working within the framework of Western culture and its definition of art and its purpose.
The maternal is definitely a diverse and provocative concept as it relates to the idea of the mother, motherhood, or the motherly. Mostly, though, the maternal is attached somewhat analogously to gender or to the biological female. But it also brings forth concepts of origin, creative sources, and capabilities to love --- i.e., to mother, as well as to watch over, nourish, and to protect. Although the latter characteristics of the maternal can be gendered as well, they do not have to be. It is thus in the metaphor that motherhood takes on where both the diversity and the ability to provoke reveal themselves.
Although a good show with good works by well-known (Mary Kelly and Renee Cox) and lesser-known artists, the metaphors in the exhibition play more on the surface as explicit issues that can be easily, if wrongly, reduced to issues of "soccer moms" or the concerns of upper middle-class parents trying to fit their children into the schedule of corporate America. In other words, it seems as if the work in the exhibition just scratches the surface of some of these more complex issues. (Fortunately, some of this is directly addressed in the catalog.)
In a world of Chucky Cheese-ified museums and special parking for patrons with children at supermarkets that somehow handicaps and then privileges the choice of having children, we need more diversity and more provoking.
So, good for Maternal Metaphors for a good try with a difficult and complex issue. But at the same time, the issues addressed are still too much on the surface. Indeed, they are hiding on the literal surfaces of the objects themselves --- the glossy or matte photographs, glistening oil paint, shiny sterling silver, patined bronze, and the pages of authoritative text.
Of course, this review is likewise part of that same kind of surface seduction: It's not that diverse and only attempts to provoke.
Maternal Metaphors: Artists/Mother/Artwork is on display at the Rochester Contemporary, 137 East Avenue, through May 23. Hours: Wednesday through Friday 12 to 6 p.m., Saturday and Sunday 1 to 5 p.m. 461-2222, www.rochestercontemporary.org.
A journey to black
If you've been worrying about the fate of Rochester Contemporary since the elimination of its executive director position, take heart.
Although it is true that RoCo lost money from NYSCA for general operating support, the gallery will likely receive funds under another program within NYSCA for installations and exhibitions. Tom Burke, a member of RoCo's board of directors, reiterated that the decision to cut the position formerly held by Elizabeth McDade was made because RoCo simply could not afford it.
Citing his role "to keep RoCo on an even keel and manage... finances," Burke stated that, by June 15, RoCo will be debt-free for the first time in a long time, and that "in the long run," the actions of the board have "preserved an important institution."
RoCo had been reaching out quite actively for funds, but its budget was drained by the renovation. Now, the budget in place is built upon conservative revenue sources. A problem for RoCo is that although revenue is good, corporate giving is weak. This is something the Board is looking to pursue. Perhaps an indication that the tide is turning is the support Maternal Metaphors received from local realtor Rome Celli.
As for upcoming exhibition plans, Allen Topolski, a local artist and educator, is now leading the programming committee. According to Burke, Topolski is putting in a lot of hours trying to establish a high-quality exhibition schedule for the next two years.
We spoke with Topolski, and although much is still tentative, what he could tell us sounds promising, including the possibility of connecting with both the Memorial Art Gallery and the George Eastman House on an upcoming exhibition. In addition, Topolski also said that they hoped to better utilize the space, such as incorporating more videos or work that has a time-based component.
The schedule also has three slots for invited or "guest" curators over the next two years --- the idea being that it's another way of exposing the community to alternate ways of thinking and seeing. And although things may seem a little bumpy right now, Topolski says he "honestly think[s] this is going to work."